Commentary: Coal—The War Years.
Where will history mark the turning points— the Gettysburgs, Antietams and Andersonvilles—of the War On Coal?
COAL: The War Years
Once the soot clears, the “War On Coal” probably won’t get the Ken Burns treatment. But, as the courts decide on the Clean Power Plan, here are some landmark moments to remember.
October 8, 2016
Environmental Health News
Last weekend in the southwestern Georgia town of Andersonville, a large crowd gathered to watch two mock battles, buy souvenirs, eat, drink, dance and soak in the nostalgia of the War Crimes Capital of America.
For its short 14-month lifetime, Andersonville’s Camp Sumter was the epitome of military barbarism: Malnutrition, dysentery, cholera and more killed a third of its 45,000 Union prisoners. When the Civil War ended, its commandant was executed for crimes against humanity.
So much for 1864. But it has me wondering how we’ll someday “celebrate” America’s current, much-hyped domestic “War.” Where will history mark the turning points— the Gettysburgs, Antietams and Andersonvilles—of the War On Coal?
The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan went to court last week. Peabody Energy, the crumbling coal giant, has hired Laurence Tribe – Obama’s mentor at Harvard Law School – to challenge it. He’s joined by industry acolytes, ideologues, and a boatload of state Attorneys General. More on that later, but here’s a list of the most consequential battles that got us here:
1970’s/’80’s: Literally moving mountains
Just as swords, carbines, and horses became obsolete in conventional warfare, so, for the most part, has the coal miner’s pickaxe. For more than three decades, mountaintop removal mining has been supplanting the human peril and relative inefficiency of underground mining.
It’s saved countless miners’ lives, and until recently helped coal underbid its rival energy sources. It’s also destroyed vast swaths of Appalachia as mountains are blown up and bulldozed to scoop out the coal deposits beneath, carried off by ever-bigger machinery and ever-longer coal trains. Completing the cycle of environmental insult is the practice of taking the immense amounts of waste and rubble and using it to fill in valleys and streams.
Aside from fattening the bank accounts of mining executives and coal train operators, mountaintop removal mining’s other big economic impact was in coalfield communities. According to West Virginia state government statistics, coal production in the state stayed fairly steady from 1924 to 2013, totaling between 100 million and 200 million tons each year except for the depths of the Great Depression. While West Virginia coal jobs peaked in 1948, production peaked in 1997. Mechanization halved the workforce by 1978, then halved it again by 1990. Today, contract workers make up the majority of coalfield jobs in the state; in neighboring Kentucky, there are no longer any unionized mines.
Jobs waged a brief, healthy comeback in 2011 and 2012, but a University of West Virginia report projects that 2016 will be the first year since the 1930's of less than 100 million tons output. That same report offers little hope for a recovery. Virtually all of this happened before a “War On Coal” was even declared.
1990’s and beyond: Double agents and fellow travelers
Much has been written and revealed recently about the oil and gas industry’s covert efforts to undermine the science of climate change, even while the industry’s own scientists affirmed its serious implications. The coal industry hitched its wagon to climate denial just as vigorously.
Much has been written and revealed recently about the oil and gas industry’s covert efforts to undermine the science of climate change. The coal industry hitched its wagon to climate denial just as vigorously.Beginning in 1989, the National Mining Association and several of America’s biggest coal-burning utilities joined other industry groups in bankrolling the Global Climate Coalition. The Coalition burned about a million dollars a year promoting doubt and denial on climate science and policy, often focusing on the Kyoto climate accord, which was never ratified by the U.S. Senate. The Coalition also promoted and distributed a documentary called The Greening of Planet Earth, which paradoxically argued that a doubling of CO2 levels was underway, but that it would be awesome. The film was produced by the Western Fuels Association, a trade group for the coal industry in the western U.S.
This behavior continued for years. In 2015, a scientist long favored by the fossil fuel industry, Willie Soon, was disgraced by documents obtained under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Southern Company, the Atlanta-based coal-heavy utility giant, paid Soon $469,560 for a series of five reports seemingly intended to distract from fossil fuels’ role in climate change. In 2009, Soon reportedly promised a Southern executive a “super-duper” paper pinning the blame for climate change on solar activity, a theory widely rejected by mainstream science. Southern Company announced it was severing ties with Willie Soon in 2015 – after he handed in one more paper.
2000: The polls of West Virginia run red in Gore’s contentious loss
It didn’t happen overnight, but West Virginia is turning red, possibly bright red. Coal angst isn’t the only reason for the change, but it’s the largest one.
In the 2000 Presidential race, Al Gore’s campaign did what Democrats have done for decades: They took the state for granted. Blue-collar loyalty to FDR’s New Deal policies held strong – even Michael Dukakis and Jimmy Carter won the state despite landslide losses nationally. Gore got trounced in the state, and the five electoral votes awarded to George W. Bush tipped the scales and led to the calamitous showdown in Florida.
West Virginia’s three Congressional seats, safely Democratic for decades, are now held by Republicans. Its two U.S. Senate seats, blue since 1959, are now split. Democrat Joe Manchin’s seat is vulnerable in 2018. He won the seat in a special election in 2010 to replace the late, legendary Senator Robert Byrd. A highlight of Manchin’s campaign was an ad creatively blending love of guns with love of coal, as he is seen literally shooting a hole in an emissions cap-and-trade bill.
In 2014, both houses of the state legislature flipped to Republican control for the first time since the Great Depression. And this year’s contentious race for Governor features an avid pro-Trump Republican against a billionaire Democrat who happens to be a coal baron, Jim Justice. He’ll have to run against the top of his own party’s ticket. In March, Hillary Clinton made a cringe worthy, poorly worded prediction for a transition to clean energy: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
West Virginians took it as a threat, not a prediction, and that’s why the Clinton campaign has conceded the state in November – the same state that cost Al Gore dearly 16 years ago.
2000’s: Coal’s secret weapon is unleashed
Even as the coal industry’s public voice cast doubt that carbon emissions were a problem, it supported carbon-capture research as early as the 1970’s. Carbon sequestration, or “clean coal” technology, was to be the magic bullet to help the industry survive climate concerns.
Complex systems would remove the carbon content from coal plant emissions, then bury the captured carbon deep underground. By the 2008 election, “Clean Coal” was a catchphrase. A trade group, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), boasted a healthy $40 million annual budget, much of it spent on imaging ads in political broadcasts. Both Barack Obama and his opponent, John McCain, spoke fondly of the promise of Clean Coal.
But the technology faltered, and required immense up-front capital investment. Demonstration plants, like the one in Saskatchewan, Canada, sucked up as much as 21 percent of a coal plant’s energy output just to capture and store the carbon. FutureGen, a billion-dollar clean coal pilot project started by the George W. Bush Administration in 2003, sputtered, was reorganized, and suffered a final failure in 2015.
A public-private effort at Mississippi’s Kemper project suffered similarly, and has little to show after $6 billion in investment. And in late 2015, the trade group ABEC – re-branded as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity — slashed its staff and shuttered its main office, citing the declining fortunes of its industry sponsors.
2009: War is officially declared
The first organized use of the “War On Coal” meme appears to have happened in late 2009. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce called on the state’s then-all-Democrat congressional delegation to lay siege to Obamacare by withholding their votes until the “War On Coal/Energy” was abandoned. By the next election cycle, the “War on Coal” was central to news headlines and election campaigns. And just like “Clean Coal,” the industry’s term of choice went household.
2007-2010: A curious case of giving aid and comfort to the enemy
Over a four-year span, the Sierra Club accepted $25 million from the fracking industry to fuel its “Beyond Coal” campaign. Back then, many environmental leaders, including Sierra’s Carl Pope, viewed fracked natural gas as a largely-benign “bridge fuel” to lower carbon emissions.
As concerns over fracking’s impacts grew, the Club quietly ended the arrangement, reportedly leaving an additional $30 million on the table. The affair hit the news two years later; an embarrassed Sierra Club had changed leadership and its position on fracking in the meantime.
The single biggest gas industry funder of the attack on its rival, Chesapeake Energy’s Aubrey McClendon, fell from grace. He was ousted from his positions as Chesapeake CEO and Board Chair, and on March 1 of this year indicted on federal bid-rigging charges. McClendon, who arguably had more impact on coal’s demise than any other individual, died in what was ruled an accidental one-car crash the following day.
The fracking industry has continued to eat coal’s lunch by underbidding them.But the fracking industry has continued to eat coal’s lunch by underbidding them.
Domestic coal’s most reliable market, the electric utility industry, is losing interest. In 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported that coal was on the verge of losing its edge as a source of electricity generation, with 33 percent of the national total – dead even with natural gas.
In 1997, coal accounted for 53 percent of U.S. electric generation.
2011: The last stock rally
Despite years of bad omens and gloomy reports, Big Coal rallied the troops for one last push.
Arch Coal (ACI) is typical of this last gasp. Arch rode the rising market, and prospects for growth in energy demand, peaking at $687 per share in July 2006. Five months later, Arch joined the rest of the market in a nosedive, scraping bottom at $110. But a recovering economy lifted all coal barges and Arch recovered, tripling in value by early 2011. And, in Wall Street’s unique way of enjoying the misfortunes of others, the stock leapt 30 points in the days following the meltdown at Fukushima peaking at $346 as coal suppliers saw a potential global retreat from nukes as a marketing godsend. Coalfield employment bounced back a bit as sales ticked upward.
It was the last hurrah. A year later, declining coal sales were inexorable, and Arch lost two-thirds of its value, and by 2014, there was a threefold decline again. Arch Coal had sunken to $40 a share, its workforce shrinking along with it.
2015: The industry begins its surrender
In January, Arch Coal, the second largest coal company in America, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, its stock price under a dollar. Peabody Energy, the biggest, followed in April. SNL Energy, a website devoted to chronicling the industry, lists about three dozen more coal company bankruptcies. Jobs and regional economies hang in the balance, not to mention the potential for literally thousands of abandoned mines and waste dumps.
Don Blankenship in 2010 (Credit: Rainforest Action Network/flickr)
Meanwhile, Bob Murray, the sharp-tongued CEO of privately-owned Murray Energy, has vowed to remain the last man standing. Donald Trump has made a promise to miners to restore their jobs – a goal that even the zealous Murray says is unrealistic. And a federal bankruptcy court has signed off on Arch Coal’s recovery plan. On Thursday, its stock price closed at five cents per share.
2016: A coal baron is shipped up the river
In 2010, an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 men. Despite the tens of thousands of coal miners’ deaths from workplace disasters and respiratory illnesses, no high-ranking mining executive had even been convicted of a related crime. Coal mining has seen over 120,000 workplace deaths since the start of the 20th Century. Black lung disease claims about a thousand miners’ lives a year and is on the rise, according to a 2014 study.
On April 6, 2016, former Massey CEO Don Blankenship was sentenced to a year in the slammer for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.
Critics often painted Blankenship as the face of Big Coal, a gruff, divisive man accustomed to getting his way through hardball politics and timely political philanthropy. He currently resides at the Taft Federal Correctional Institution in California, where he awaits an appeal scheduled for late October. His company, Massey Energy, was absorbed into a bigger firm, Alpha Natural Resources, in 2011. Blankenship made a reported $86.2 million on the transaction. Alpha filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and exited bankruptcy this summer. This week, Blankenship announced plans to distribute a quarter-million, 67-page pamphlets from his cell, declaring himself an “American political prisoner.”
2014-2016: The Clean Power campaign
To wildly mixed reviews, the Obama Administration proposed its Clean Power Plan in June 2014 and unveiled its final version 14 months later. The plan put unprecedented limits on carbon emissions on power plants and encouraged investment in clean energy to reduce air pollution and combat climate change.
Supporters applauded. Industry and its allies in Congress prepped for an epic battle. Coal state politicians led the charge. Eventually more than half the states signed up to oppose the Clean Power Plan. Some of those states drew up strategies to comply with the plan even as they battled it in court. Many states appeared to be in early compliance with the plan’s mandates. Lest anyone doubt their motives, Colorado AG Cynthia Coffman assuringly said “We don’t have anything against clean air.”
Efforts to halt the Clean Power Plan failed at the District and Appeals Court levels.
On February 9 of this year, the Supreme Court suspended the Clean Power Plan, sending the case back to the Court of Appeals for review. Justice Antonin Scalia lamented giving an agency like the EPA “unheralded power” to make decisions of vast “economic and political significance.”
Scalia died four days later.
The Appeals Court ruling is imminent, and with Scalia’s seat still vacant, the Presidential election will almost surely determine the makeup of the high court.
Big Coal and its supporters await the new. It’s been seven years since they embraced the phrase “War on Coal.” Now, a depleted industry looks to a depleted Supreme Court to learn whether it’s time for coal’s Appomattox.